Unfortunately, myths and misconceptions about genital Human papillomaviruses (HPV) abound. Bad information can cause a person to suffer terrible anxiety unnecessarily, to doubt a partner’s faithfulness, or even to undergo painful and expensive treatment that could have been avoided. Most dangerous of all, misinformation may lead people to neglect a very simple procedure that saves lives.
HPV is a virus spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex through direct skin to skin contact. Sexual intercourse is not required to get it. It’s very common, and research suggests between 50 to 75% of all people who have sex will get it at some time during their lives. In most cases HPV exhibits no symptoms and in 90% of cases the immune system clears it within 2 years. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any issues, but when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer.
There are more than 100 types of HPV. About 12 types of HPV can cause genital warts. These types are called “low-risk” because they have very low cancer potential. About 15 types of HPV can cause cancer of the anus, cervix, vulva, vagina and penis, as well as cancer of the head and neck. These types are called “high-risk.” Just 2 types – 16 and 18, cause most cases of cervical cancer.
HPV harms the cervix by infecting cells, which may become abnormal and begin to grow differently. These changes can lead to cancer. They are known as dysplasia and are classified as mild, moderate, or severe. Both low risk and high risk HPV can cause abnormal cells to grow, but only the high-risk types increase the risk of cancer.
HPV infections that are not cleared by your body’s immune system are called persistent. Young women get rid of the virus quicker than older women. Also, women who smoke are more likely to have the virus persist. The longer the virus persists, and the older the woman, the greater the chance of developing pre-cancer of the cervix. When HPV is present, smoking doubles the risk of progression to severe dysplasia.
Men and women can pass HPV to each other. Since HPV usually does not cause any symptoms, if you have more than one partner over time it’s not possible to know who passed it to you, even if you are currently monogamous. In many cases an abnormal pap test result is from an exposure that happened years ago.
The pap test is the main screening test for early signs of abnormal growth in the cervix. Regular use of pap tests has greatly reduced the number of cases of cervical cancer in the U.S. An HPV test is also available and can identify 15 different high risk types. Currently, there are no approved tests to detect HPV in men. While cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer associated with HPV, the virus can also lead to oral and anal cancers in men and women.
Prevention of HPV is best as there is currently no medication or treatment that completely destroys the virus. Limiting your number of sexual partners and using condoms will help protect you against HPV, herpes, and other STDs. Condoms won’t protect you against virus transmitted through oral sex.
Vaccines are available to help protect against the worst types of HPV. The vaccines increase your immune response to fight the viruses. The vaccines are given in 3 doses over six months. They work best if they are given before the person has become sexually active. They can still be given if you are already infected with one type of HPV and will protect you against the other HPV types the vaccine prevents. The vaccines are not recommended for pregnant women but can be given during breastfeeding.
Getting vaccinated, limiting your exposure, and getting screening for cervical cancer and any follow-up tests that are recommended are the best ways to prevent the worst complication of HPV, cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor at your next appointment to see if the vaccine or testing are right for you.